The UK’s lost Beagle 2 lander has been found on Mars partially deployed, proving the entry and landing sequence worked as planned. However, no data can be retrieved as the spacecraft’s antenna is covered by a solar panel.
The discovery, a cooperation between Beagle 2 scientists from the University of Leicester and teams operating the HiRISE camera on Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, presents a bittersweet ending to the decade-long mystery.
“We are certainly pleased to have finally learned what happened to Beagle 2, we are pleased to know that the entry, descent and landing sequence worked but we are also frustrated to know that we really had been so close and that it was most likely just a matter of bad luck,” said Professor Mark Sims from the University of Leicester who worked on the project from the start together with the late Professor Colin Pillinger.
“We are frustrated because there are most likely data in the lander’s memory, from the accelerometer and from a camera, but we can’t access them because the antenna is covered with a solar panel.”
The low-cost Beagle 2 was Europe’s maiden attempt to land an object on the Martian surface. Largely funded by donations, the 70kg descent module piggybacked its way to the Red Planet aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter in 2003.
It was designed to lower itself onto the planet’s surface by consecutive deployment of two parachutes and touch down protected by three airbags. Once on the ground, the airbags would release the 33kg lander, which would unfold from its travel pocket-watch-resembling configuration like a blooming flower.
First images suggesting a presence of an object consistent with the features of Beagle2 were obtained by the HiRISE instrument in 2013. Over the course of the following year, the Leicester University scientists worked closely with the Nasa team to obtain further photographs and analyse the unusually bright spot clearly visible in the middle of the red desert of Isidis Planitia.
“We are fairly confident that what we’ve found is Beagle 2,” said Leicester University scientist John Bridges. “It lies within 5km of the prospected landing site of Beagle 2. It is very bright and distinctly coloured compared to its surroundings and we can distinguish the characteristic multi-component shape, which simply can’t be just a collection of rocks.”
Moreover, in the vicinity of the lander the scientists identified objects consistent in shape and size with the lander’s parachute and rear cover – both ditched during the landing sequence.
“The way these objects are dispersed is consistent with what we would expect to happen during the landing sequence,” Bridges noted.
The HiRISE camera, probably the only imaging instrument currently orbiting Mars capable of providing a sufficient level of detail to spot an object the size of Beagle 2, orbits 300km above the Martian surface.
“The HiRISE camera provides images of areas typically 6 to 15km across,” Bridges explained. “Every pixel would be about 30cm across which means we can recognise objects tens of centimetres in size and here we are talking about an object which is almost two metres across.”
A combination of multiple images taken in different parts of the spectrum allowed the team to achieve even finer detail. Further analysis showed the discovered object doesn’t cast any shadow, unlike similarly sized boulders – telling for the flat Beagle 2 lander.
“I believe Colin (Pillinger) would be pleased had he lived to see what we’ve found but at the same time he would be very frustrated,” Prof Sims noted about the leader and spiritual father of the Beagle 2 project who died in May last year. “He would be frustrated to see that we had really gotten so close.”
Beagle 2 departed from the Mars Express orbiter on 19 December 2003 – the last time the scientists heard from the spacecraft. An anxious wait followed, when excitement slowly turned into concern and concern into disappointment as no signal was to be heard coming from the lander.
Eventually, the mission was declared lost with a failure of the entry, descent and landing sequence considered the likely cause.
“The problem was we didn’t have any data from the entry at that time,” said Prof Sims. “There was no data relay system in place and there was no orbiter in position at the time to support the lander. Mars Express was busy establishing its position in orbit and Nasa was busy with its Mars Rovers, which were to arrive soon after Beagle 2.”
Prof Sims admits that knowing what they know today, the scientists would certainly design the lander differently. However, he remembers, the £50m mission faced considerable constraints. At the end of the day, he said, the mission turned out to be a success and was Europe’s first landing – not crash – on Mars.
A bittersweet denouement: Professor Mark Sims talks about Beagle2
Beagle 2 discovered on surface of Mars infographic